Most Kansas City barbecue joints get it: real barbecue is smoked or grilled, lightly seasoned with a dry rub — the sauce on the side.
Sauce it if you must, but the best compliment you can give a pitmaster is, “This barbecue is so good it needs no sauce!”
Sauce isn’t bad. It is optional, not essential—although some believe that “the secret’s in the sauce.”
A good sauce can add an extra-delightful flavor wallop — but only when the meat is good to begin with.
When I sauce my barbecue I like a sour mustard or vinegar base sauce on the sweet meat of pork, and I like a dash of sweet tomato base sauce with beef, lamb or mutton barbecue. Now and then I’ll go with a tomato base sauce on pork ribs.
A personal favorite is Flower of the Flames Raspberry Jalapeno barbecue sauce served with the excellent ribs at Jon Russell’s Bar-B-Q in southern Johnson County, Kansas.
Today’s barbecue contest pitmasters also get it: judges like sweet barbecue.
Instead of saving the dessert category to last, judges demand sweet ribs, sweet pork butt, sweet brisket and sweet chicken.
“Sweet baby, sweet,” is the mantra at the contest pits. Some make it so sweet you could call it “candied.”
Sadly, today you’ll also get sweet barbecue at contests in the South, where the traditional standard is naturally sweet pork meat with peppered vinegar or mustard base sauce.
Compare the chopped barbecue pork with peppered vinegar sauce at Allen Sons in Chapel Hill, N.C., for example, with the sweet ribs, butt or whole hog you’ll eat at the Memphis in May World Championship Barbecue Contest.
Alas, even the Memphis in May whole hog cooks who used to cook the traditional way with peppered vinegar or mustard sauce are injecting and mopping their hogs with sweetened apple juice and other confections.
I judged a team once that used embalming equipment to inject sweet marinades into their whole hog.
Be wary when you’re served “barbecue” that is drowned in sauce, especially in cafes or restaurants that aren’t barbecue joints.
The meat flavor is so overpowered by sauce that it wouldn’t matter if it was smoked slow and low in a barbecue pit or oven-roasted in barbecue sauce. The latter is your best bet.
I love candy, but give me a choice between a dark chocolate gourmet truffle and a real smoked, tender, juicy, lightly peppered and salted barbecue rib and I’ll take the rib.
However, if the truffle is from KC’s Christopher Elbow or Annedore’s, I don’t want an either/or option. I’ll take the riband
Real barbecue is fantastically delicious on its own. Please, let’s save candy for the dessert category.
Ardie Davis is an iconic figure in the barbecue community. He founded a sauce contest on his backyard patio in 1984 that became the American Royal International Barbecue Sauce, Rub Baste contest. He is a charter member of the Kansas City Barbeque Society and an inductee into the KCBS’s Hall of Flame. He has been interviewed on numerous food shows and writes for a variety of barbecue-related publications. He is also the author of a number of barbecue books, his most recent release “America’s Best BBQ Homestyle: What Champions Cook in Their Own Backyards.”